Allentown families helping lessen pain of homelessness

Staff Writer

 Allentown’s Audrey Vitello, 8, helps load baskets into the van for transport to children living in “welfare motels” along Route 1 in Mercer County.  JENNIFER KOHLHEPP Allentown’s Audrey Vitello, 8, helps load baskets into the van for transport to children living in “welfare motels” along Route 1 in Mercer County. JENNIFER KOHLHEPP Some nights they go to bed hungry, but this Easter 44 homeless children drifted off to sleep with bellies full of sweet treats.

A group of Allentown mothers and their children delivered 88 baskets filled with candy and toys to the “welfare motels” on Route 1 in Mercer County as part of their grassroots movement to help homeless families.

“We all felt we should be teaching our kids to give back and help, and to try to make a difference with everything going on in this world,” Karen Dahms, Allentown, said.

Dahms has three children and lives adjacent to Newell Elementary School; these factors made her home the perfect place for kids to play and mothers to convene after school. The 10 families, with a total of 20 children that regularly drop in, got to talking about forming a community service unit. Dahms agreed to the use of her home as a service base, and the mothers and their children started “Project Denim” to collect jeans for homeless families in the area.

In collaboration with Newell Elementary School and Robbinsville High School, the Allentown families collected more than 500 pairs of jeans for HomeFront, a nonprofit organization in Lawrenceville that has a mission to end homelessness in central New Jersey. HomeFront representatives will visit Newell Elementary School on May 18 to honor the children involved in the project and to collect the donated jeans.

After partnering with Home- Front, the Allentown families learned about the “welfare motels,” which provide state-subsidized rooms for homeless families. According to HomeFront, the living conditions in the “welfare motels” along Route 1 in Mercer County are squalid. The rooms are tiny, forcing children or entire families to share a single bed. The rooms, which are usually dirty, do not have cooking facilities, bathtubs, tables or chairs.

“After going there and seeing what they don’t have, I realized how lucky I am,” Adeline Beckert, 8, said. “They don’t have a big house. They don’t have a lot of food. They don’t get to eat every night and we do.”

Determined to lessen the pains of homelessness, the Allentown mothers and their children started making hot meals a few times each month for those living in the motels. Of the 80 meals that they make, 44 go to children, according to Dahms.

“The average age of a homeless person in Mercer County is 7,” Dahms said. “The national average is 9.”

The Allentown families were shocked to learn this statistic and to find out that some of the children they deliver hot meals to had never received an Easter basket. Through the generosity of the Allentown families, parishioners at St. John’s Church inAllentown, and Bohren’s Moving and Storage in Robbinsville, the children living in the motels celebrated Easter with chocolate, jelly beans, toys and other treats that the mothers and their children delivered on April 22. Audrey Vitello, 8, said creating the baskets, making meals and collecting jeans for the homeless families makes her feel good.

“I’m helping other people that need it,” Audrey said.

The children involved in the grassroots effort range in age from 3 to 10 years old. The group also includes Brody and Van Beckert; Samantha Vitello; Jack Musich; Evan and Aiden Collins; Morgan and Camryn Beltran; Ryan, Grace and Timmy Welsh; Jaiden and Addison Gingras; Raymond and Winn Austin; Krista and Emily Fiordland; and Melissa Lincoln.

The children and their mothers encouraged other local families to get involved with helping the homeless in Central Jersey by joining them or through a partnership with HomeFront or a similar organization. For more information about helping the homeless, call Karen Dahms at 609-575-6023 or visit